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"The Corner" -- Review of Book Behind Emmy-Winning Program

by Paul H. Rosenberg Tuesday, Sep. 12, 2000 at 5:27 PM
rad@gte.net

There’s a strange mirroring between the corner addicts and ourselves. Our addiction to the war on drugs mirrors their drug addiction -- we spend more and more to get less and less, we know it’s not working, it’s destructive, yet we can’t find the strength to quit, it’s unthinkable to quit.

The Corner The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood, is co-author David Simon's follow-up to his prize-winning book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Co-author Edward Burns was a 20-year man who served in the Baltimore homicide unit Simon wrote about, and is now a schoolteacher. Like Homicide before it, The Corner derives enormous power by telling its story faithfully and carefully, avoiding the glitzy clich and cheap adrenaline rush that only get in the way of telling the truth.

The inhabitants of this world are street dealers and their organizations, local addicts who survive on a wide range of hustles, occasional stick-up men, a small remnant of law-abiding citizens and neighborhood children who seem destined to end up on the corner now matter how innocent they originally are. The echoes of Dickens are unmistakable, haunted by the darker sensibility of Baltimore's own most famous addict, Edgar Allen Poe.

At the heart of The Corner is the intersection of two families -- the hardworking McCulloughs and hard-partying Boyds -- and the neighborhood savior, Ella Thompson, who runs a recreation center, providing the sole source of stability for most children and teenagers in the neighborhood around Fayette Street and Fulton Avenue. Gary McCullough was a workaholic, holding down 2 or 3 jobs at a time (plus managing his own stock portfolio), who worked his way up to owning his own construction company plus several neighborhood rowhouses. He loved discussing mysticism, cosmology and metaphysics. Fran Boyd was his wife--always into partying, she got hooked on coke after her sister died, which eventually broke up their marriage. Finally, to Fran's sorrow and surprise, that breakup lead to Gary taking up heroin and cocaine and losing everything he had. Their eldest don, DeAndre (aged 15) runs with a bunch of kids playing at being a gang.

Over the course of a year, we watch people run hustles, from the routine to the elaborate, form partnerships and double-cross each other, get away with countless crimes and get busted--sometimes for bogus charges--make endless excuses, occasionally try to quit and--surprisingly--even succeed with very little going for them. Though absorbed in petty crime, they're not really evil -- just driven by uncontrollable need, doing what they have to. "To exist in that environment--to seek or sell dope and coke--and at the same time to carry the burden of an outside morality is to invite abuse and failure," the authors explain. "Make no mistake: No one likes to play under the rules, no one on Fayette Street respects them or regards them as fair or worthy or in any way justified. Even the lowest needle freak knows guilt at the instant he's doing dirt, but knowing it changes nothing."

The Corner follows events day-by-day, with enough backstory to make sense of things as they unfold. But inevitably, the authors disclose a broader backstory -- that of Gary's father, his hardworking rise to homeownership and sending his children to college; of the drug trade going back to the 1960s and 70s, when it was a marginal, covet affair, governed by strict rules, bounded by shame, and the dramatic change with the arrival of cocaine; of the neighborhood itself, including the role played by the 1968 riots, after the murder of Martin Luther King, and the role of real estate agents who promoted white flight, buying cheap from fleeing white families, selling dear to arriving blacks.

We also get some wide-angle shots framing the painful close-ups at the heart of The Corner; such as the authors explaining, "not only is the street-level drug arrest not a solution, it's actually part of the problem." Government resources, credibility and effectiveness have all been sacrificed, they argue. Arrest rates for shootings, armed robbery, rape, burglary -- all felonies except murder -- have fallen, as the investigative departments have been gutted to focus on street-level drug-dealing.

Thus, it's not just the addicts, everyone connected with drugs and the drug war is a prisoner of futility. The good cops are existential heros -- maintaining a code of duty and conduct with no hope whatsoever it will make a damn bit of difference. The bad cops, overhwhelmed by the hopelessness of their task, no longer know or care how to do real policework -- drug busts are so easy to make, plus it hardly matters if you do it right or not, you know the people you're arresting are guilty of something -- so what if it's not the crime you've arrested them for? Under these conditions, good men can become bad cops, just as good men can become petty criminals and lifelong addicts.

Gradually two sobering ideas take shape: first that the inner city and the war on drugs are the "next Vietnam" we've spent so much money to avoid overseas -- once again we've found ourselves in a quagmire not knowing how we got there. Second, that there's a strange mirroring between the corner addicts and ourselves. Our disconnection from them mirrors their disconnection from the wider world. Our addiction to the war on drugs mirrors their drug addiction -- we spend more and more to get less and less, we know it's not working, it's destructive, yet we can't find the strength to quit, it's unthinkable to quit.

The Corner isn't an easy book to read -- gripping, compelling, necessary, yes -- but devoid of answers, full of questions, it's a hard book about telling the truth. Addicts only changes by facing the truth. The same is true for the nations.

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